The cause of my reminiscence is a Ukrainian visit by my brother, Warren and my sister-in-law, Judy. When I was younger, I don't think I appreciated their effort to keep in contact with family as much as I do now. Now I relish their visit.
Judy and Jenny
They have multiple reasons for visiting Ukraine. Top of the list are two grandsons, Brendan and Aidan. My niece is married to an military officer and he along with the whole family are now living in Kiev. In one of those odd coincidences, he learned about his assignment two weeks after mine. It has been a wonderful blessing to have family close and now a visit from Warren and Judy.
Brendan and Grammy
Aidan and "Great" Uncle Jud
I meet them in Kiev having decided that placing them alone on a train might be too much of a Russian language adventure. I remember my panic. They are grateful. My brother calls me his lifeline. I chuckle to myself since all of my life, I have looked up to him.
The train ride to Konotop is uneventful. I brought a bottle of wine along. So we sip it from plastic cups and Judy and Warren get a look at the Ukrainian countryside captured like snap shots through the smudgy train window.
"It's very flat, even more than Iowa" remarks Judy. Warren notices a lack of storage silos and processing plants. Both wonder where the live stock is hiding.
Ukrainian land stretches from horizon to horizon without interruption. What does get cultivated is often done by hand. We see miles of thick dark black earth and in the distance, small figures bend over as generations always have done. Spring means days of back-braking work.
In the future, whenever I think of some overwhelming task and feel like giving up, I will remember the figures preparing the soil row by row by row. Progress is painfully slow, but they do not give up. With much toil and constant bent frames, their bodies offer a kind of kinetic prayer, - "Grant us a harvest again this year. "
Konotop is buzzing with excitement. A special Tea Time is planned at Hearts of Love for 1:00 pm. Friends are making arrangements to leave work so that they can greet my brother and his wife. Later in the night we will be hosted at a home for a traditional Borscht dinner.
Meanwhile, we sightsee Konotop and enjoy the perfect Spring weather. A short trip to the Konotop Aviation museum is disappointing. It's closed on Mondays. We still get to see the helicopters through the fence under watchful eyes of a guard.
On our way back we notice a small church. The gate is open beckoning us forward. A few men and what appears to be a special needs teenager are clearing winter debris from the yard. Several women are inside methodically cleaning the floors on their hands and knees.
We hesitate to enter, but their warm smiles and gestures urge us inside. The Church is a year old made from recycled bricks that may be a 100 years old. The altar is constructed of plywood and has yet to be covered in the ornate Russian Orthodox style.
For now, beautiful cross-stitch hangings cover the walls. Judy, who is an avid sewer, admires the handiwork. It is amazing what you can communicate with warmth and body language. She does not really need a lifeline.
The rest of the day is consumed with eating Ukrainian style.
At Hearts of Love, tea time has been transformed into a luscious lunch. We are treated to lupsky (cabbage rolls), a fresh salad, veggies, crepes and many sweets.
My brother presents a wooden cutting board to Yelena as a token of appreciation and friendship. He hand-crafted it and by the look on her face it will become a treasure.
After 3 hours, the meal ends and we say our farewells. We walk down the gravel and dirt paths towards Konotop's only hotel. It is actually quite nice. We have an hour to try to recover an appetite before our next eating engagement.
Natash has set a luscious table. Surprisingly, an Iowa State Flag is part of the center-piece. Immediately Warren and Judy wonder how she came about having such a flag on a table in Konotop.
It seems that she went to America for a leadership conference at Iowa State in Ames Iowa - where Warren and Judy lived most of their lives. Even more fascinating, Natasha brings out a scrap book with pictures of several friends Judy and Warren new well. Instant rapport.
Set before us are big bowls of borscht. Each one is like a serving dish. It's absolutely delicious. Natasia and Babushka have worked most of the day preparing this special meal. Ukrainians, like many people, show love by with hospitality. Appetite or no appetite, Warren and I make room savoring each spoonful. Judy does well too.
Judy is amazed that all the careful chopping and dicing is accomplish in such a small kitchen. There's a small table and about two feet of counter space.
Space is limited. It's one of the differences that Americans normally notice.
Americans need physical space for privacy while Ukrainians create a kind of mental privacy. Close proximity without communicating is normal. We Americans feel a need to fill spaces with words and if we can't, we grow increasingly uncomfortable until we leave for another room. Ukraine families have few places to escape. It is not unusual for a family of six to live in 2 or 3 rooms.
The next day, It's off to Chernigov and a visit with my host family. Ksusha takes leave from work to be our excursion guide. Her English is excellent though she confides that Americans "do speak quickly." .
Chernigov is an ancient city and many of the world class landmarks remain. We walk towards ancient churches amidst a colonnade of Soviet heroes. Take a look and see for yourself.
St. Parasceve Church
Boryso-Hlibsky Cathedral dating from 11th century
Andre and Natasia, whose wedding I attended,join us as do Pavil and Ksusha who may get married this Fall. Pavil shows me some of his design work for office furniture. He works with his father in a small fabricating shop. He is the design brains behind the products. His work is really quite good.
My brothe and Pavil have something in common. They both create with wood. I feel like I am introducing family to family. It's wonderful.
The next day we wander through the extensive Bazaar until we happen upon the used tool section. I knew it would happen.
Warren loves collecting tools - not as show pieces but as useful instruments for his excellent wood working. He is like a kid in a toy shop. He must see every aisle at least once, maybe twice, but who is counting.
Too quickly our visit comes to an end. We head back to Kiev in a Marshrutka. Flat fields accompany us with occasional villages and the odd sight od stork nests afixed atop telephone poles. I see a few baby storks peeking from nests and looking for their mothers.
Jenny and Jud
Judy plays peek-a-boo with a child in the seat ahead. Both communicate in the universal language of giggles. I smile too. I get to thinking about family and realizing how blessed I really am. Thanks for visiting.